“I want to do something no one has ever tried before,” says Sal Mineo (Val Lauren) as he prepares for a studio pitch in one of the opening scenes from James Franco's Sal. He's referring to a film adaptation of Charles Gorham's brutal, gay-themed novel McCaffery, which the Hollywood actor was set to direct before he was stabbed to death in an alley outside his West Hollywood apartment on February 12, 1976—a tragedy Franco foreshadows with the archival news footage that opens the film. Mineo continues with great confidence: “The way I want to make this film—no one has had the balls to make it the way I want to make it.” This could double as Franco's directorial manifesto, as the glacially paced, naturalistic format of Sal decries the reductive, softening nature of the traditional Hollywood biopic.
With a flagrant penchant for flouting conventions, Franco structures his material as a purely observational, last-day-in-the-life narrative—a minor yet lofty attempt to capture, as Mineo notes regarding McCaffrey, “nothing but gritty, beautiful, realistic truth.” From the four-minute workout scene that introduces the audience to the titular subject, in which Mineo samples a variety of gym equipment with grunting and sweaty force, Franco's aims are clear: to have viewers see the “true” Mineo through drawn-out, quotidian sequences of daily routines. Franco stubbornly allows the camera to linger on his everyday activities as we see—via long, wandering, and occasionally aimless takes—the way Franco envisions Mineo spent his final hours.
Unfortunately, Sal functions under the delusion that subtext will magically appear if you linger on a character long enough, and the significance of most of its scenes is nothing if not inscrutable. Through a series of elliptical vignettes, we experience Mineo's morning in painstaking—and ponderous—detail, as well as witness him telling graphic stories of gay hookups and sweetly requesting that his acquaintances come to the opening night of his new play, and all without being given any real insight into the actor's character. Despite pretensions to cutting-edge originality and tense foreboding, the film feels like a weightless shadow of its galvanizing cinematic and video-art influences: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, a radically disquieting experiment in duration that subtly illuminates a desperate housewives inner life; Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, whose double-projected presentation truly amplifies the spirits of its already bigger-than-life subjects; and especially Gus Van Sant's Last Days, a film similarly fixated on the inevitability of death, but whose immersive style itself cannily and unnervingly reflects a Kurt Cobain stand-in's death drive.
Sal is a rather charitable portrait of Mineo, showing the actor as a carefree, loving artist on the brink of career resurgence, but it's limited by Franco's own transparent artistic aspirations to find veracity in banality. Hampered by directorial self-consciousness and an ambivalence of whether to be gritty or pretty, Franco's portrait toes the line between neorealism and a more aestheticized sense of the real—ultimately restricting the film from achieving either verisimilitude or poetry. Ultimately, Sal becomes exactly what Franco, in his search for truth, is trying to avoid: an inconsequential, showy display of false modesty.